Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens


Characters Fagin

Although Dickens denied that anti-Semitism had influenced his portrait of Fagin, the Jewish thief’s characterization does seem to owe much to ethnic stereotypes. He is ugly, simpering, miserly, and avaricious. Constant references to him as “the Jew” seem to indicate that his negative traits are intimately connected to his ethnic identity. However, Fagin is more than a statement of ethnic prejudice. He is a richly drawn, resonant embodiment of terrifying villainy. At times, he seems like a child’s distorted vision of pure evil. Fagin is described as a “loathsome reptile” and as having “fangs such as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.” Other characters occasionally refer to him as “the old one,” a popular nickname for the devil. Twice, in Chapter 9 and again in Chapter 34, Oliver wakes up to find Fagin nearby. Oliver encounters him in the hazy zone between sleep and waking, at the precise time when dreams and nightmares are born from “the mere silent presence of some external object.” Indeed, Fagin is meant to inspire nightmares in child and adult readers alike. Perhaps most frightening of all, though, is Chapter 52, in which we enter Fagin’s head for his “last night alive.” The gallows, and the fear they inspire in Fagin, are a specter even more horrifying to contemplate than Fagin himself.